Sweeping changes to the state’s misdemeanor probation system took a step forward Monday when a committee approved a bill based on recommendations by the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform.
The House Judiciary Non-Civil committee approved House Bill 310. The bill would address a wide range of concerns about Georgia’s misdemeanor probation system.
Georgia places more people on probation than any other state.
Most local courts contract with private probation companies to handle misdemeanor probation cases, and critics says the use of the for-profit companies has led to abusive practices
Critics also say the companies profit from Georgia’s unusual use of probation as a payment plan for costly tickets. Many judges who preside over misdemeanors will sentence low-income defendants to “pay only” probation, where people are placed on probation not for supervision but simply to get time to pay. The overall cost of a misdemeanor offense can quickly double once probation fees are added to the tab.
The legislation being considered by the General Assembly gives judges and probation companies something they want: clear authority to put misdemeanor cases on hold if someone stops reporting and can’t be found. The Georgia Supreme Court ruled last year that the widespread practice of “tolling,” or pausing sentences, is not authorized under current law.
The legislation would require probation companies to disclose, for the first time, how much money they make from supervision fees and fees for “pay-only” probation would be capped at three months.
Judges could substitute community service hours for probation fees and waive fines and fees if they would cause a significant financial hardship.
The bill also requires what the U.S. Supreme Court already ordered: Before jailing someone for failing to pay, the judge must find that failure was willful, not the result of poverty.
Oversight of private probation companies would change too. State regulators who oversee probation would be moved to a new state department.
The changes are part of this year’s package of criminal justice system reforms sought by Gov. Nathan Deal.
“The Governor’s proposed private probation reforms are an excellent first step in putting a stop to what in many cases are clear abuses that have very little to do with justice and have everything to do with making money on the back of low-level offenders trapped in a system that in some cases resembles the nightmare of a never ending, outrageously high interest loan,” said Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, chairman of the Judiciary Non-Civil Committee.